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Greater Minnesota eyes transportation funding debate

Minnesota state Sen. Vicki Jenson of Owatonna says Monday that greater Minnesota transportation needs go beyond roads and include transit. (DON DAVIS | FORUM NEWS SERVICE)

ST. PAUL — Greater Minnesota has lots at stake in a legislative transportation funding debate.

Senate Democrats said Monday that it is not just about roads and bridges. They said that rural transit also needs more money.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, D-Cook, said that last fall he moved his mother into a senior citizen apartment and quickly discovered there is no van or bus service to the regional center of Virginia.

“Let me tell you,” Bakk said, “transit is not just a metro issue.”

Without a way to get to Virginia, Bakk said, his mother has little access to businesses. “We don’t sell a lot of things in little towns anymore.”

“Shouldn’t someone like my mother ... be able to get on a bus and maybe go to an appointment for a hearing aid?” he asked.

While Republicans in general have opposed upping transit funding this year, House Transportation Chairman Tim Kelly, R-Red Wing, Monday said that transit is part of the comprehensive plan that needs to pass.

Transit funding “is totally inadequate” in both the Twin Cities and greater Minnesota, Senate Transportation Chairman Scott Dibble, D-Minneapolis, said.

Twin Cities transit improvements would help greater Minnesota, Dibble said. The Senate Democrats’ transportation plan includes a provision to allow counties in the Twin Cities to levy a sales tax for transit projects. Dibble said that would free some state money for greater Minnesota spending.

Sen. Susan Kent, D-Woodbury, said there are openings in her eastern Twin Cities suburb that people from St. Paul could fill, if there were adequate transit options.

“Businesses have walked away ... because there are not ample transit opportunities in our community,” Kent said.

Sen. Vicki Jensen, D-Owatonna, said that more transit and transportation funding is needed “if we want people to continue live in our rural communities.”

For roads and bridges, there seems to be agreement between Republicans and Democrats that $600 million a year for the next decade is needed to catch up to where the state needs to be.

Democratic senators want to increase the state gasoline tax, one of three existing revenues dedicated to transportation.

Senate Tax Chairman Rod Skoe, D-Clearbrook, said the gas tax “is truly a user fee,” and likely the only one of the three revenue sources that could be raised this year. He said that raising the motor vehicle excise tax charged when a vehicle is purchased will not change, nor will vehicle license fees.

Skoe said he hopes Republicans can support a higher gas tax if another tax is lowered. He suggested a $90 million cut in the statewide business property tax as one option.

Republicans want to change some transportation-related taxes from going to the state General Fund to make them dedicated to transportation uses. One example is a sales tax on vehicle parts.

Bakk said that he is happy he and House Speaker Kurt Daudt, R-Crown, agree that $600 million a year more is needed for transportation. Now, he said, a secure source of long-term, funded is needed.

“I don’t want to just put a little Band-Aid on it with a little (budget) surplus money,” Bakk said.

A House-Senate conference committee that was set up last year could begin negotiating a compromise later this week.

“Put down the sabers,” Bakk suggested. “We badly need a bipartisan solution.”

Also Monday, the Office of Legislative Auditor released a report saying that the Minnesota Department of Transportation does a poor job of picking projects to be funded.

The auditor suggested that MnDOT should increase the transparency of how it decided on funding, especially making information public to enable comparisons among projects. Of special concern was the Corridors of Commerce project, aimed at major greater Minnesota highways, that needs “greater objectivity and transparency.”

In a letter to the auditor, Transportation Commissioner Charles A. Zelle agreed to do a better job. For Corridors of Commerce, the commissioner promised to “adopt more objective criteria.”

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.